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Is Berry Tramel the Thayer Evans of Oklahoma Journalism?

Sadly it seems we are increasingly trading substantive reporting for page views.

Deemed Mr. Unreliable by his hometown paper
Deemed Mr. Unreliable by his hometown paper
Ronald Martinez

A few days before, being at such a crossroads was impossible to imagine. After Game 2 it was Scott Brooks who looked worn and beaten; it was Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who were arguing on the sidelines. Now, in the span of six days the roles were completely reversed. It was the Spurs who couldn't seem to find an answer and the Thunder that seemed to be in complete control. It was Tim Duncan and Tony Parker that were struggling to understand the strategy of their head coach, and it was Durant and Westbrook who were all smiles from the podium.

So the season was down to a best of three series and Gregg Popovich went all in.

He was asked by a reporter from The Oklahoman if he considered re-inserting his starters into the game after his role players cut the deficit to 11. After chastising the man for talking with food in his mouth, he said curtly, "No because I didn't see any sense in it." When asked why he went to his bench so early, he said only "Thursday."

-From my upcoming LongForm "Looking Back at 5" chronicling the Spurs NBA Championship season

Who was the reporter that couldn't stop eating his sandwich long enough to ask a question last May during the Western Conference Finals? Berry Tramel.

The same Berry Tramel that wrote the now infamous hit-piece entitled Mr. Unreliable about NBA MVP Kevin Durant during Oklahoma City's playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies. And yes, it's the same Berry Tramel that yesterday wrote a sexy story comparing Kliff Kingsbury to superficial tennis star Anna Kournikova. This ‘paragraph' sums it up:

Kliff Kingsbury is college football's Anna Kournikova. Known for their looks, not for their games.

There was a time in the not-so-distant-past that true journalism chose substance over splash. Articles like the two mentioned above written by Tramel were fodder for tabloids, or dare I say it, blogs. The valuable space inside newspaper columns was reserved for stories well-researched and documented. But now in our daily chase for the Holy Grail (page views) "research" and "background" have taken a backseat to speculation and conjecture. Hell, in today's world, you don't even have to spell the names of the principals correctly. (Emphasis mine)

The day before the season opener, Tech athletic director Kirby Holcutt gave Kingsbury a contract extension through 2020. Kingsbury will be paid $3.1 million in 2015, with a $200,000 raise each season through 2020.

So this morning I'd like to do what my friend Berry did not. Let's spend a few minutes providing background to what The Oklahoman deemed news fit to print. From the article:

Instead, Kingsbury, almost two years into a head coaching career at his alma mater, is college football's reigning sex symbol. Sorry, Mike Gundy. You got no chance Thursday night in that race.

The ballgame? Gundy's in better shape. His rebuilding Cowboys have been promising. Kingsbury's Red Raiders have been disappointing. OSU is a 14-point favorite.

Here Mr. Tramel lazily tries to draw a comparison between Kingsbury and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. On the surface he's exactly right. The OSU program is in better shape than Texas Tech's right now. But has that always been the case?

Similar to Kingsbury, Mike Gundy is coaching at his alma mater and was a decorated quarterback at his school. In 2005 he was hired after Les Miles accepted the head coaching job at LSU. It's safe to assume that Miles was offered the job because he'd done well enough at OSU to merit such an opportunity. In Miles' last three seasons in Stillwater he won 24 games. In Gundy's first three he won only 18 (while losing 19), including an inauspicious 4-7 effort in his first year.

Kingsbury on the other hand inherited a program from Tommy Tuberville, who like any good salesman realizing his pipeline is empty, bolted to the comfortable confines of the American Athletic Conference. In fact, it could be argued that Texas Tech football has been in a state of upheaval since November 8, 2008.

On that date, ironically, Tech defeated Oklahoma State 56-20, moved to 10-0 on the season and were ranked #2 nationally. From there though, the fall was precipitous.

Two weeks later Oklahoma embarrassed Mike Leach's Red Raiders in Norman and then went on to lose to Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl. The 2009 season was one of turmoil as Tech fought to an 8-4 record, and transition as Mike Leach was fired before their Alamo Bowl appearance and win. Enter Tommy Tuberville and three rather forgettable seasons.

So if we're comparing Kingsbury and Gundy, let's do so on level ground. Mike Gundy won 12 games in his first two full-seasons. Kingsbury has won 10 in just over one. But there's more:

And the early returns on Kingsbury are shaky. Quarterback defections last off-season - Michael Brewer to Virginia Tech, Baker Mayfield to OU - raised questions about Kingsbury's communication skills. The resignation of defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt last week raises questions about Kingsbury's organizational skills.

Again, on its surface, it seems a perfectly reasonable paragraph. Many Texas Tech fans were (and continue to be) alarmed by the sudden defections, particularly from Brewer and Mayfield. But again, let's dig deeper. With some intense research (I googled "college football transfers") I came across this story that details 19 major quarterback transfers heading into the 2014 season and 134 players overall expected to have an impact at their new schools after a transfer. With the early success of Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, kids, particularly quarterbacks, want to play right away. When they don't they leave; it's that simple. It's a relatively new phenomenon, but not limited to Kingsbury and Texas Tech. Gone are the days of redshirt senior quarterbacks taking the reigns. It's a go big or go home world now in college football more than a reflection of Kingsbury's communication skills.

And though he was brilliant in the season opener versus Ohio State, Michael Brewer has since shown why he may have been relegated to 2nd team in Kingsbury's offense. Losses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech coupled with eight interceptions in their first three games in a run-first oriented offense have left many to wonder if Kingsbury was in fact correct in his decision to go all-in on Davis Webb. And let's not even discuss the legend of Baker Mayfield.

Now, as to organizational skills and Matt Wallerstadt: Perhaps a bonus system where Kingsbury's assistant coaches paid players for on-field performance would've yielded different results? Who knows. Maybe Kingsbury needs his own Joe Deforest.

But therein lies the delicious irony. The paragraph above is intentionally filled with allegations yet to be fully vetted and red meat for my readers. It's also irresponsible and not something I typically publish.

A region, state, and hoard of prominent local media so up in arms about the reporting done by Thayer Evans and Sports Illustrated on the Oklahoma State program now resorts to the same, albeit more benign tactics. For all the claims of "lazy reporting" and holes in the Evans story, it seems reporters like Tramel and The Oklahoman are now doing the same in the name of page views. Oklahoma's daily newspaper did it to Kevin Durant in May and are now doing the same to Kliff Kingsbury.

In his defense Tramel was exceedingly fair and even critical of the Oklahoma State program last year during the uproar over the Sports Illustrated expose. While trying to find more context for this story I read back through several of Tramel's articles during the time frame and in each he seemed to be the voice of reason. He continually called for those so close to the situation to take a step back and look at the big picture. He implored Oklahomans to look at the substance rather than the splash. But in each article, as I read to the end, a window would pop-up on my computer screen. It was an invitation to click on the big trending, popular story of the day. The juicy headline "Is Kliff Kingsbury the Anna Kournikova of College Football?" is just too good for readers to pass up--substance, background and context be damned.

I do have one confession: Though my story in the introduction is completely true, I can't recall if it was actually Tramel that Popovich chastised for lack of manners. I know it happened, and I know it happened to a reporter from Oklahoma City, so I ran with it knowing I could generate page views. Act now and ask forgiveness later, right? After all, journalism!

Of course Oklahoma State might beat Texas Tech tonight. In fact that outcome is likely. But if not, expect a story from me comparing Mike Gundy to Winona Ryder. Once a rising star, now relegated to stealing costume jewelry from Target just like Ol' Winona. The parallel will be difficult to draw but completely worth it in the end when I get 10,000 hits.

A text from a friend of mine summed up this new world of journalism perfectly: He found great humor in a lazy, superficial article centered around a complete stranger's presumed superficiality.